This is a sermon that I preached quite some time ago, but rediscovered this week as I was doing some teaching on the book of Revelation. I think that it is one of the the books of the Bible that we often avoid and frequently misunderstand. This was part of a sermon series that we were doing on the book and was my attempt to get people thinking more helpfully about the challenges that the book has for us.
The great 16th century reformer, John Calvin, banned ministers from preaching on the book of Revelation as he as thought that attempts to interpret it were divisive and dangerous, and he also didn’t believe that anyone could know what it actually means! Given this passage about 7-headed dragons harassing pregnant women, I think Calvin may have had a good point!
So, I’m going to talk about science-fiction instead. I really enjoy science-fiction, both books and sci-fi films, and for those of you who don’t like sci-fi, can I assure you that it’s not really about lasers, rockets, and robots. Good sci-fi is really about the nature of reality, the nature of humanity, our limitations and flaws and how we deal with them. If you want one good example of that, a lot of 1950s American sci-fi was about the communist threat, they just happened to express it in terms of zombies and mind-controlling aliens. Although, in fairness, quite a lot of 1950s American sci-fi is also really bad.
One more modern sci-fi film that has intelligent, evil robots, massive computers, and lots of fighting, but is really about the nature of reality is The Matrix. It’s a great film, and well worth watching; unlike its sequels, which are rubbish!
In the film, the hacker Neo is searching for the answer to the question ‘What is the Matrix?’. A series of encounters lead Neo to a secret meeting with the mysterious Morpheus. Morpheus offers Neo a choice between two pills: A blue pill that would return him to his old life, and a red pill that would allow him to learn the answers he seeks. Neo swallows the red pill, and he finds himself disconnected from the computer, which has been keeping him captive in a virtual reality. A bit later on, he has this conversation with Morpheus
[Film clip – What is real? First 1:35 seconds of the clip]
The rest of the film is about how Neo and the other humans seek to defeat the machines, helped by the other unplugged humans from their base in the last free city, Zion.
A bit like a good film, the book of Revelation is about painting pictures in our minds. It wasn’t written as a theological textbook. It wasn’t even written as a sort of history book about the future, which it often gets treated as. In the terrible Left Behind series and similar, Revelation gets treated as if it gives a list of dates and events that we can then try and match to what is happening now. That does rather leave open the question of what Christians for the last 2,000 years were meant to do with it, and also the question of why people think that the attempt in the Left Behind series or whichever else to identify the Antichrist or whoever is going to be successful, when thousands of other attempts have failed.
Revelation was written as an encouragement for Christians who were facing persecution, and it still serves that purpose even today. Revelation leaves you with a series of vivid images, that you’re much more likely to remember whatever the circumstances and however bad they get.
In the Matrix, one of the groundbreaking special effects that it used was called ‘bullet time’. This was where characters were paused or only moved very slowly, whilst the camera zoomed round looking at them from different perspectives and angles. That’s what some of Revelation is like – it gives one perspective, pauses the action, and zooms round looking at it from a different point of view, using different imagery to make the same point.
Just like we saw in the clip from the Matrix, Revelation is telling us that we can’t always trust what we think we can see or how we feel. Reality, both the Matrix and Revelation tell us, can be different, stranger, more complicated, than we ever thought or imagined. We may feel like a small persecuted minority, but Revelation reminds us of the reality that we’re on the winning side.
The dragon fails to devour its intended prey, Jesus, and so in desperation, turns on Jesus’ followers. But, he has already been cast down from heaven, his power is waning and the end is triumph for God and the church. That’s the reality, Revelation tells us.
To get that point across, this central chapter of the book uses what was then a common story, a Greek myth. In this myth, the king of the gods, Zeus, commits adultery, again. His latest mistress becomes pregnant and so Zeus’ wife commands a massive dragon to pursue Zeus’ mistress to destroy her and her unborn children. However, the god of the sea comes to her rescue, hides her, and carries her to an island where the mistress gives birth to twins, the goddess Artemis and the god Apollo. Apollo then pursues the dragon and finally kills it. In short, it is a myth about a pregnant woman being chased by a huge dragon, which is finally defeated.
So, you can hear the similarities with Revelation. But, this isn’t any old Greek myth that’s been used. It’s the same Greek myth that the Roman Emperors liked to use, portraying themselves as Apollo, slaying the dragon of chaos and destruction. Here in Revelation, though, the dragon has seven heads. And, in Revelation 17:9 we’re told that the seven heads of the dragon are seven hills. And the significance of seven hills? There was only thing that seven hills would have meant to anyone in the ancient world, and that was Rome, the city based on seven hills. So, this well-known story is taken, and shifted. Rome goes from being the slayer of chaos, to the dragon, the creator of chaos and destruction. The son goes from being yet another god, to the Son of the Living God, Jesus Christ. Revelation places Jesus back at the centre.
And in the midst of this story, there is war in heaven, after the Son is taken up into heaven, to God’s throne. In the Old Testament, like in the passage we heard from Zechariah, and in the book of Job, Satan is pictured as being able to come before God, to highlight the sins and failings of humanity. The very name ‘Satan’ means ‘accuser’, while the word ‘devil’ means ‘a slanderer’. The wrongs that people have done have given him a foothold, a way to approach God and to accuse and slander God’s people. But, the war in heaven is launched because of Jesus’ death on the cross and resurrection. Satan is cast down, because our wrongs no longer have to get in the way of us approaching God. We can approach God through Jesus, and because of Jesus, as it says in verses 10 and 11, the accuser has been hurled down, we have triumphed over him by the blood of the Lamb. And the picture, here, reminds of that, with Jesus crucified but enthroned as king.
“I saw Satan fall like lightning” Jesus tells his disciples in Luke’s gospel, when they return from their journeys through the area telling people about the kingdom of God. And this is part of God’s invitation to us, through the book of Revelation. We too can become part of the story, we too can take part in the adventure, the struggle over evil. We don’t have to sit and watch another hero save the day. We are invited to join in and live out our lives as part of God’s victorious people. The image of Jesus as king, but on the cross, is a very powerful one that’s been used through the centuries to remind us that what we can see, a man broken on a cross, is not the whole of reality.
The poster strapline for the Matrix was “The fight for the future begins”. We are part of the fight for the future, a fight that we know that God wins, but a fight that engulfs the whole world. Through God’s Holy Spirit we are given the power to be part of that fight. We are called and empowered to fight for God’s kingdom here on earth, to see things as they really are, to see reality with God’s eyes. We are called and empowered to work for God’s justice and God’s love to be known here on earth in the places where we live and work.
We are called and empowered to resist Satan, in our own lives, and in those structures and organisations that, like Rome had, have gone bad and bring chaos where they should bring order.
And we have prayer ministry at the end of this service if you’re struggling with how to live out that calling. Quite often, it means staying where you are but perhaps doing things a bit differently. Sometimes, it can mean a change in what you do. So, for me it was to become a Children’s Worker and then be ordained. And in some ways that’s easier than staying where you are and changing. We all have to ask God to help us to live out our calling. But, we can also all hold fast to that distinctively Christian hope that the ultimate resolution to the problems we face doesn’t lie with humans, but in God. We don’t have to live in despair over ‘what this world is coming to’ but we can live in hope because of ‘who is coming to this world’. That of course is what we celebrate at Christmas. In Advent, this season of preparing and waiting, let us look back with thankfulness to the first coming of Jesus, and let us prepare and work for the second coming in our day-to-day lives. The fight for the future has begun, and through Jesus we are part of it. Amen.